Leonardo da Vinci first sketched the design for a self-propelled cart with programmable steering in the late 15th century. Fast forward to 2010, when Google announced its fleet of self-driving cars had quietly racked up over 140,000 miles on public roads. Robotic cars found in science fiction, as well as Leonardo’s sketch books, will soon be science fact. To ensure innovation is fostered and fleet deployment is rapid, policy makers must prepare for this new reality.
Google’s announcement surprised even those who had been tracking vehicle automation developments. As of this writing, Google’s self-driving cars have now logged a total of over half a million miles. Autonomous vehicles—also known as driverless cars and self-driving cars—promise to dramatically reduce human error, which is a crash factor in over 90 percent of auto accidents. This has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives annually, significantly reduce traffic congestion and air pollution, and offer greatly improved transportation access to traditionally mobility-impaired populations such as the disabled, elderly, and youth.
Such innovation would result in a massive shift in the role of automobiles in society and the institutions that have been built around automobility. The advent of highly automated vehicles may require modernization of our motor vehicle codes, auto safety regulations, infrastructure investment, products liability law, and local transportation service regulations to best adapt to this future.
But regulatory and legislative intervention also poses great risks to the development of the technology. In particular, laws and regulations that narrow the scope of permissible development, testing, and operational functionality risk locking in inferior technology, delaying adoption, and increasing prices faced by consumers. To reduce these risks, lawmakers and automakers should adopt a liberalized approach toward innovation and a cautious stance on legislation and regulation, particularly at this early stage.